A bailout for...arena football?

ESPN reports that the Arena Football League (AFL) will announce the cancellation of its 2009 season due to worsening financial conditions.

The official announcement will come sometime this week, but sports reporters have been keen to something drastic since the league had delayed the release of its 2009 schedule three times.

The league released this statement last Friday:

The AFL is working on long-term structural improvements which have unfortunately delayed some important events, such as the release of the 2009 schedule, the Dispersal Draft, and the beginning of free agency. We thank our fans for their enthusiasm for these events and ask them to be patient a little longer while we finalize our long-term improvements. All AFL teams are working toward winning ArenaBowl XXIII.

Not to sound like I’m unsympathetic — which I kind of am — but who the fuck cares? Does anyone really follow or watch the AFL? Well, to my surprise, apparently so. Its popularity has increased in the last decade and attendance is up (the average per game for 2007 was 12,415). The USA Today even considered it the United States' fifth major sport. But for some reason the league has floundered financially. The New Orleans VooDoo folded in October despite strong attendance, nearly the best in the AFL. When one of your most popular franchises goes under, something’s wrong.

What's wrong? I haven't read anything that actually spells it out, but I assume a few of the usual suspects — oh, like corporate greed and inflated administrator and player salaries — are to blame.

I'm sure ESPN is quite pissed. “The Leader,” as many like to call it, bought exclusive rights to all AFL related multimedia in 2006, as well as a minority share of the league’s ownership. Ever wonder why ESPN is endlessly touting arena football during other sporting events? That’s why. Just as in 2004 when the NHL cancelled its season, ESPN is now burdened with large chunks of open programming (which it paid a ton of money for), though I’m sure they’ll have no trouble filling it. I suggest bringing back a reliable time filler from the network’s early days: Aussie Rules.

As if it wasn’t obvious already, I don’t really care. Sure, I’m a football fan, and arena football is football, but…no. Although it was cool and exotic at first, arena football lost all its appeal to me when the Iowa Barnstormers relocated to New York in 2000. The league didn’t like Des Moines because it was a smaller media market, and also because they desired a larger, more modern facility than “The Barn.” The team’s success and loyal following wasn’t convincing enough to keep the Barnstormers in the Hawkeye State. (The AFL did, however, award Des Moines with an afl2 team in 2001, but the franchise went on hiatus until this year.)

The whole ordeal really exposed the AFL for what it really was: a mini-NFL (literally, too) used to enhance the business portfolios and pocketbooks of corporations and millionaires too poor to play with the big dogs. It was a stepping stone and the league exploded with expansion in mid-sized media markets throughout the country. Most of the teams failed, and it looks like the whole concept is on the brink.

AFL execs are now looking for a bailout. No, not from the government (thankfully), but from someone willing to buy the whole thing and save it from ruin (at least the owners; the way I think of it, bailouts are welfare for rich people). In October AFL owners approved a $100 million deal with a company called Platinum Equity. I’ve never heard of them, but they would have taken managerial control of the league. However, the deal hasn’t been finalized, so it looks as if the AFL will have to keep searching for a charitable buyer.

Although the 2009 season looks to be a loss, the league hopes to be up and running again for 2010. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching the real AFL — the Australian Football League.

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